The list of memorable performances at Pinehurst in recent decades will always start with Payne Stewart in full flight on the 18th green.
That image would have been indelibly attached to Pinehurst Resort and Country Club’s No. 2 course even before Stewart’s tragic death a year later, commemorated both in bronze and the now-traditional Sunday pin placement on 18 – back right, where Stewart rolled it in for the win in 1999.
Then there’s Martin Kaymer’s mechanical domination in 2014, followed by Michelle Wie’s breakthrough a week later. Michael Campbell’s fluke win in 2005 is remembered less for his play than the seemingly inevitable Tiger Woods challenge that never materialized.
And maybe someday, they’ll say the legend of 17-year-old Shuai Ming “Ben” Wong started at Pinehurst as well. Playing alongside another 17-year-old, Frankie Capan, Wong made three key birdies on the the back nine Wednesday to turn an early deficit into a 2-and-1 win in the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball, rolling an 8-foot putt down the hill on the 17th hole to close out Clark Collier and Kyle Hudelson.
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Capan was terrific, too – he made a critical birdie on the 14th after driving it so far right he almost made the 13th fairway – but Wong turned the match around with a 20-footer on the 10th and won it on the 17th with another dialed-in tee shot. He was so pumped on the tee, his caddie had to talk him out of a 6-iron and into a 7-iron. It was quite a day for the duo: In their semifinal win Wednesday morning, Wong drove the 13th green for an eagle, and they were 7-under-par for the 16 holes they needed to win.
“You’re just like, really?” Hudelson said. “It gets exhausting. You just have to start laughing.”
History was going to be made either way: Both Capan and Wong still have another year of high school left, the youngest winners among the three years this young national championship has been contested. Capan, from Minnesota, is bound for Alabama. Wong, who is from Hong Kong but lives in Dallas, is headed for Southern Methodist.
They met as 7-year-olds at a junior golf tournament and have been friends ever since. Last year, they made the final 16 in this event as 16-year-olds at Winged Foot. In 2013, when Wong made the U.S. Junior Amateur and Capan didn’t, Capan caddied for him. There’s a distinct sense that this is merely the beginning for both of them.
And if not them, then it would have been the accidental champions: Collier, 27, and Hudelson, 29, childhood friends from Oklahoma City who live in Dallas and Scottsdale, Ariz., respectively now. They were the last team into the field, last-minute alternates invited on short notice after a member of another team qualified for the NCAA championships and had to withdraw.
Collier, a geologist, canceled a trip to Colorado to play; Hudelson, an insurance agent, was supposed to be playing in Oklahoma this weekend. Each had a beer in hand before the trophy presentation; their opponents are years away from being able to do the same legally.
“When we were 17, we were just outside screwing around, hitting balls, fishing, getting into trouble,” Collier said. “We didn’t have the perspective they have at 17. Those guys are a step above. It’s really, really impressive to watch.”
Collier and Hudelson led by two walking off the 5th green and had a chance to go three up and apply serious pressure on the 6th when their younger opponents both missed the green, but Capan scrambled for par and a halve. Wong birdied the 10th and 12th to even the match – missing a 6-footer for a win on the 11th – and Capan birdied the 14th.
That left Wong and Capan up one on the 17th tee, where both Collier and Hudelson found the sand and Wong’s putt down the hill never wavered. That’s how it was all day.
As he entered the trophy presentation, Wong’s father was congratulated by Pinehurst owner Robert Dedman, who got his MBA and law degree from SMU. “I understand your son is going there?” Dedman noted. Making a friend like that may end up meaning more than winning this tournament.
It’s going to be a busy summer for Wong now. He advanced to sectional qualifying for the U.S. Open next week, and he’ll be back at Pinehurst in less than a month for the North & South Amateur, maybe the one historic Pinehurst tournament where it doesn’t all seem to come back to Stewart.
While Capan and Wong took pictures with the trophy, Hudelson and Collier posed in front of the Stewart statue, while the Sunday Open pin position Stewart made famous sat, unneeded, on the 18th green.
“This morning, I got a text from my coach: ‘Payne’s right there,’ ” Wong said. “He’s watching over. Which is pretty special to me.”
Wong made sure neither of their matches Wednesday would come to that, and added his name to a long list of Pinehurst performances in the process. Whether his name or Capan’s will still resonate down the road will have a lot to do with where they go from here.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock